Thursday, July 20, 2017

Race Report: Northwest Epic Series Sun Top 60

The short:
Creative credit for finding this race and making the logistics come together goes to Chuck and the Parker clan.

Chuck and I went down to Washington mid-week last week, borrowing his in-laws camper, and then camping with them, to race Northwest Epic Series’ Sun Top 60 miler: two 30 mile laps that featured two long grinding fire road climbs and bombing down sweet singletrack each lap, for a total of 11,000’ of climbing! The field was shallow, but I took 6th in the mens open, and 9th overall, out of 25 starters.
 
One of the only pics from race day
 

The long
I’ve been wanting to do an endurance mountain bike race Outside Alaska for the last few seasons.
Racing in Alaska, everything is familiar, from the competitors to the trails. This would also provide an outlet so all my endurance racing eggs weren’t in one race (the Soggy).
The set of criteria to guide what made sense to race was pretty narrow.
I don’t want to race before mid-June, I don’t see the point in paying to race at altitude, and any race needs to have a minimum of a two week buffer on either side of the Soggy (always the first Saturday in August).
Despite the limits, that still leaves quite a few options fortunately.
Chuck sent me a link to the Sun Top race. With a very low ($60) entry fee, plus the ability to do it all on the cheap and in relative comfort thanks to help from the Parkers, it was a no-brainer.  

We got to the venue Thursday morning. The race was based out of the Buck Creek Campground, which, quoting Trenton, Chuck’s brother-in-law, is a dusty $4!7hole. It was ideal for the staging the race though, and cost $5 a night. Sadly it was completely trashed and abused. Broken glass, garbage, piles of empty beer cans, swaddles of toilet paper, and random fire pits everywhere, and I’m not exaggerating. Chuck and I filled 1/3 of a contractor bag with garbage from our site alone. Super lame.

On the other hand, we were right at the doorstep to some great riding, and set off to pre-ride the entire course.

The course:
The course consisted of an “internal” and external loop. From the start/finish at the campground, the race set off on the shorter internal loop, climbing a 5-mile fire road that gained about 1,300 feet, before teeing into the apx midway point of the Sun Top Trail. The course dumps down the lower half of Sun Top trail back to the campground, losing all that vert in a hurry by blasting down straight line traverses broken up by hard switchbacks, and peppered with numerous series of mini drops.
Riders passed back through the campground, closing the “internal loop”, exited the campground again, but then split right at the base of the fire road, and headed into the woods on the Skookum Flats Trail to begin the “external loop.”
Skookum was by far my favorite section of the course: a 5-mile stretch of old-school single track that passed through ancient river-bottom forests, and oscillated rapidly between fast flowy sections and slow technical rock and root features. A and B line options abounded.
Skookum spit us out at the base of the main climb up to Sun Top summit, accessed via a 6-mile fire road climb that gained nearly 3,100 feet of vertical. The road climbed at a steady grade of between 8-12% from bottom to top, and never flattened or rolled to provide a single section of coasting. It was basically like sitting on a trainer with the resistance cranked all the way up for an hour+. Stop pedaling, stop moving.
From the 5,280’ summit and active fire tower, the course hit the beginning of the Sun Top Trail.
A rather short 500’ rowdy descent ensued. Up here, the trail consisted of loose, fist-sized rocks, more mini drops, and switchbacks, with some no-fall sections.
The Sun Top trail loops around from the summit and actually crosses the road we just climbed
The course description warned that after this road crossing, the Sun Top Trail had a nasty climb in store.
They weren’t kidding. The trail climbs from the road crossing through open pine forest for 600 vertical feet over about a mile. With a 3,000 foot climb hardly in the bag, this section was absolutely miserable on the mind and the legs. Worse yet, it keeps getting steeper as you climb.
The trail finally hits the high point of the day though, and begins to run downward along the ridge line. Two more short punchy climbs stood between us and the beginning of the true descent, but once it begins, it dive bombs in one awesome and fast uninterrupted contour back to the top of the first climb of the day. From here, you are back on familiar ground in the lower half of Sun Top trail, and tip down the twisty switchbacks back to the campground to complete the “external loop.”
The whole course was 30 miles long with 5,500 feet of climbing.
Now just repeat, and you have the 60 mile race…Gulp.

Photo: C.D.




Chuck and I realized we had not given the race enough credit. Fire road climbs and single track descents sounded like hammer fest to the top and sesh the downhills. The second half was fairly accurate, but the climbing was long and laboring. Dieseling was a better descriptor.
We don’t have fire road climbs up here. Even our road climbing tends to be broken up with rolls and flats between pitches allowing for short mid-climb recovery.
I was targeting a time of 7:30.

On Friday we re-rode the external loop. Riding Skookum Flats again, I dialed in all the features. I also changed up my climb strategy middle ring in a low cadence, to keeping it cool in the little ring with a high cadence. It felt way more sustainable.
Friday afternoon, Doug, Shelly, Trenton, Brandy and their little crew all showed up, along with all the weekend campers, and mountain bikers. The campground came alive.

Through the twisted timbers on Skookum

There were some massive old trees


The active fire lookout at the summit of Sun Top

Sven, or Vern... he likes to talk, a lot.



Photo: C.D.

Photo: C.D.

 

The Race

The 60 milers went out an hour before the 30 milers. The field was shallow, only about 25 riders, compared to 90 or so in the 30.
We lined up, and they sent us off.
What ensued left me laughing, and gasping.
People sprinted!
My warm up had consisted of riding about 500 feet from the camper to the start line!
There was basically no choke for 5 miles and 1,300 feet of climbing. I could see no value to hammering, and was having none of it.
What I say next could come off the wrong way, but, I’ve been riding a bit, and have a pretty good sense of both my limits, and sometimes, those around me. What I’ll say, is looking at some of the other riders, I got a sense that some of the people around me didn’t know what they were getting into.
This point was going to get proven to me.
Fifteen minutes into the climb, and slowly getting into what would actually be my ride speed, I began to catch up with a few riders. As I would catch up, htye’d start shooting glances back, and in several cases, as my front wheel would come up alongside, a few of these guys would suddenly speed up.
I watched, almost in disbelief as they were “counter attacking,” and my clock only read 15 minutes in.
Are you serious?
We dropped into the first descent, and as expected, there was no passing, though there were a few riders pulled over with mechanicals.
I actually did catch one of the riders who was “counterattacking” me earlier, near the base of the descent, but, as we hit the flats through the campground, guess what, he took off through the flats and “attacked” again.
I decided about then that I’d probably start making passes near the top of the second climb as these guys wore themselves out
I also got the sense my day was going to be a scavenger hunt, and would basically be on, picking off people riding stupid.
I was only partially right.
I rolled into Skookum Flats, and as the trail began to duck, dodge, and weave, I found myself on the guy’s wheel pretty quick. I passed him, and fairly quickly caught another rider.
In the next 5 miles on Skookum, I’d take a total of 4 placements!
I did not see that coming.

I nailed every feature on Skookum both laps on race day, a definite help in closing positions. Photo: C.D.

We spat out from Skookum, and I was riding alongside Matt from BC. He was a really good technical rider, so I was actually looking forward to having someone to pace with on the climb, but as we hit the base, he dropped back.
I rode up to the summit through the long grind, with another rider just up the road from me. This rider would occasionally look back, but I had no interest in burning it up.
After completing the initial descent from the top of Sun top, we went into the awful singe track climb. Not even a ¼ the way up, I found the rider I’d been tailing the past hour walking, unable to climb the steep pitch.
I muttered something about how much this pitch sucked, and he asked me if I knew how much longer it went on…
I paused for a second, before I prefaced my response with: “I’m seriously not trying to get in your head.”
Continuing, “but it’s not going to be over soon, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’m sorry.”
It seemed like a hard thing to say, but, wtf, it was the truth. I had to learn that on Thursday.
The second punchy ascent along the ridge had a gradual lead in, and though I should have known better, it still caught me off guard in a really tall gear. I had to strain to keep moving, and cursed at the pain of the stupid move. Once the descent began though, it was fantastic. The cool morning air leant a bit of dampness and tack to the trail. It felt like the best descent I’d had yet.
Crossing the internal loop’s road and beginning the switchback descents, I was pleased by the lack of dust (every descent but this one down this section was dusty due to other riders nearby.)
The one caveat, was that the 30 milers had come though, and this descent would also shift in shape each passing. Some corners were notably more blown out, but the worst was a steep double drop though an S-turn that went off camber over super loose dry soil.
I rolled in with too much speed, slamming the double drops, and realized I was going into the steep off-camber duff next.
The bike immediately began to suck downward.
Oh fuck.
An axel-height rock followed immediately by a switch back was all I could see. I could either try and roll the big rock and hope the suspension ate it, or let the bike sink deeper off the duff and into the brush, hoping I didn’t snag, and fail, and assuredly sending my into the switchback at way too sharp on an inside angle.
I aimed for the rock and pulled back. The yeti didn’t like the rock, but it pulled over it.
I could literally see skid marks through the forest litter leading out of the switchback from where at least a few human bodies had slid.
Rushed with relief to have avoided what would have been a nasty wreck, and pissed at the chaos that had clearly caused the change in the trail, I swore out loud.
Oh, there’s an elderly volunteer medic staged at this obviously dangerous spot…Ya, the look on her face said it all. It was a nice to have a little comic relief.

Rolling back through the campground, I swing off at our cooler and snapped in the new bladder. I ran with 2 liters of water per lap, and drank around 1.75L each lap. I might have drank more the second were it not for the water being ice cold from being in the cooler. It really helped.
My second internal loop of the day felt really good. I was all alone, the climb was staying shaded, and I never saw anyone on the way, but my legs were feeling better than expected.
Into the internal loop descent, a 30-mile rider closing out his external loop shot by. I heard another 30 miler coming as I opened the suspension, and assumed that these front runners would likely catch me on the descent. No such issue, the guy I heard coming seemed to fade further and further behind.
Back through the campground for the last time, and on to Skookum to start the second external.
I was still alone, and began to think that was it for the race.
Due to crash on Skookum the night before the race, the organizers had instituted a mandatory dismount section with a volunteer on site to ensure everyone walked.
As I passed, I asked when he’d last seen another 60-miler.
“Right there” he said, point down the trail.
No kidding, a white helmet bobbed just around the corner.
A few minutes later I caught the rider at the base of a 10-foot ledge we all had to hike-a-bike. He waved me past and I shouldered the bike for the quick scramble, but when we remounted, he was able to hang on the next mile or so to the road.
As we popped out of the woods, I saw another racer, stopped, draped over his bike and clutching his quads. 
I swung by the cooler Doug and Trenton had dropped off and grabbed my Coke. The guy I had caught on Skookum was still on my wheel, and asked if maybe I had a cold beer in the cooler too, ha!
Not yet I told him.
As we started to climb, I offered him some of my drink, but he declined, and then dropped back, disappearing.
“Two more placements thanks to Skookum!” I congratulated myself.
The caffeine and sugar did it’s job and the bottom 2/3 of the climb seemed to go by a little easier, but around mile 4, the guy I thought I’d just dropped reappeared. In the next 2 miles, he would go from being out of sight, to within 10 seconds of my wheel as we hit the summit.
I was deflated. So much for not getting passed.
I knew I could put a little time into the guy down the nasty descent, but I still had a pretty narrow lead with the hardest climb ahead.
“Ride smart through the initial descent. You cannot crash. Don’t look back.”
I popped back out to cross the road, and went into the steep single track climb.
I knew if I was still getting tailed, he would be able to see me ahead, and I knew if turned around, it would only defeat me further.
I dug in, hoped I didn’t hear breathing, passed a couple exhausted 30 milers, and hoped for the best.
As I neared the top, I finally shot a glance back.
Just a quiet and empty forest.
The last descent was one of the hardest descents on my life. Getting sloppy or lazy at these speeds would mean a really bad crash. I had to ride smart, but my legs were starting to seize. Climbing was actually easier on them then descending.
Despite all the use, some sections of trail felt like they were riding better, and I ended up passing a couple more 30 milers.
I didn’t really think there was anyone close, but I drilled the stretch through the campground with what little I had left.

 
Feeds: The race offered 3 aid stations. The first was just past the start-finish and had food and water, the second was water only and was about halfway up the big Sun Top Climb, and the third was another full aid station with food etc. at the top of Sun Top.
I never used the aid stations other than to toss out an empty can of Coke. Thanks to Doug and Trenton, we had a cooler in the campground near the start where I had a second bladder to swap in mid-race, and another cooler at the base of the big Sun Top climb where I had a small can of Coke for the last climb of the day. Swapping bladders took 30 seconds, and I drank my Coke on the wheel.
I had all my food onboard in a gas tank bag: Cliff shot bloks and Honey Stinger Waffles. I ate 2.5 packs of bloks (no caffeine), 2 waffles (one chocolate), and the Coke, feeding every 45 minutes starting after 90 minutes.
Not stopping at aid stations gave me a definite edge over all the racers I passed. The rider who nearly caught me at the top of the second lap stopped at the aid station. I have no idea why. He should have pushed through, he might have taken me down.  

Takeaways:
This event really lived up to all that I personally hoped it would. I got to race somewhere else, on new trails, against some new faces, and enjoy some summer weather that has kind of been lacking in AK.
The race organizers were really cool, friendly, and full of stoke for their participants – no egos.
The bang for your buck value was incredible: $60 got you the following:

  • A really well marked course .
  • Medics stationed all over the course as well as onsite.
  • A well-thought out evac plan for numerous locations on course.
  • Hard time limits.
  • Two staffed and stocked aid stations and one unstaffed water station.
  • Live results.
  • A post-race BBQ with burgers, dogs, drinks, and snacks.
  • Cold beer.
Ya, you read that last one right.
Would I do this particular event again? No. On the upshot, talking with the race directs after, it sounds like next year they will make the 60 just a 50 and get rid of the second internal loop. That will be a good change with basically no impact on the feel. They also plan to market it a little differently and emphasize that this is really challenging.

I would certainly recommend the event to someone, but, since I have to fly a long ways, it was a good experience, but there are definitely other races to check out. I’m really intrigued by NWE’s Capitol forest race, which I take is kind of their premier event anyway. Based on this race, I would def give the race org’s kudos, and recommend any of their bike or running races.

Chilling out Saturday night.

The compound.

Personal takeaways
In the big picture, I can’t say I had any major takeaways from this race, which is OK. Obviously, the trails were new, and the riding style, particularly they extended fire road climbs, were new, and challenging.
This was a climber’s race, and my Yeti is an obvious handicap in a marathon race with endless smooth climbs (it’s kind of a handicap in any race, but it’s also a great all-around bike). A typical 4x4 XC full suspension rig was clearly the choice for the 60 mile event, and I think a strong technical rider with climbing legs on a hardtail with a 120 fork could mop up the 30 mile.
Otherwise, my only real takeaway was that I generally played my cards right. I basically made all my passes on the most technical section of the course on Skookum. That is a real ego booster, as that was some true-to-the-roots of the sport techy riding. I thought I would pick off some riders on the climbs, but not so much. I put a little of that on the bike. The Yeti does really well for its size and build on trail climbs, but is definitely not an attack bike on smooth dirt roads. The descents were too short and rowdy too do much damage there. All I noticed on descents was that I extended my leads.
Really, my next biggest advantage came from endurance experience. I didn’t stop at aid stations, amp my pace in response to those around me, and my feeds and hydration were on point.
The one conversation Chuck and I had was whether I would have benefited from going with the initial sprint.
Having had the chance to look at the re-play on Strava, the answer was no, in this case. My next closest competitor was out-climbing me on every ascent. If I’d gone with the sprint, the guy still would have driven a harder pace then I was on the ensuing three climbs. Basically, assuming that going with the sprint did not have a negative impact on my performance later (who knows), my delta would have been 2 minutes on the next position, instead of 8. In a broader picture, had there been a thicker field, or had the guy in front of me not driven his climbs with as consistent gains, then yes, it could have. Food for thought.